The U.S. Department of Education plans to continue its push for a college-rating system, even if Congress doesn’t shell out the $10-million the agency is requesting to develop the program and put it in place.
The Obama administration requested $82.3-billion for the department in the 2015 fiscal year, which begins on October 1. The amount is $1.3-billion more than the current year’s budget, an increase that is second only to the Department of Veterans Affairs. A line item in the department’s request says it would use $10-million to support "further development and refinement of a new college-rating system."
When Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared before a Senate subcommittee that oversees appropriations for education on Wednesday to discuss the department’s proposed budget, Sen. Jerry Moran asked what the agency would do if it didn’t get the money.
"In the absence of that $10-million to be included in our appropriations bill, do you have the money and the authority to pursue this program?," Mr. Moran, a Republican from Kansas, asked during the hearing.
Mr. Duncan responded by saying the department would move forward with the initiative, but the money "would be very, very beneficial."
Last year President Obama directed the Department of Education to create a plan by the 2015-16 academic year to rate colleges based on measures of access, affordability, and student outcomes, and eventually to allocate federal aid based on those ratings.
Under the plan, students attending higher-rated institutions could obtain larger Pell Grants and more-affordable loans. Policy makers and higher-education officials have questioned whether the plan might have unintended consequences.
Echoing some of those concerns at Wednesday’s hearing, Senator Moran said he worried that the ratings system would discourage students with "difficult backgrounds" from pursuing a college education, and that metrics for colleges based on the income of their graduates could hurt programs that lead to careers in the military, faith-based organizations, or education.
Mr. Duncan responded by saying that, if the department’s plan did not deal with those concerns, "then we would have failed."
The federal government gives about $150-billion in grants and loans to support higher education each year, Mr. Duncan said.
"Virtually all of that is based upon inputs, virtually none of that is based upon outcomes," Mr. Duncan said as a reason to support the college-rating push. "Taxpayers are supporting a massive investment each year and have very little sense of whether they are getting a good return."
On Tuesday, Mr. Duncan testified before the House education committee about the department’s budget and policy priorities for the coming fiscal year. During that hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, said the department collects "mounds and mounds of data, but from that we get very little information."
"We like transparency, and we don’t think we’re getting a lot of transparency from the department," Ms. Foxx said. As an alternative to the college-rating system, she asked why the department did not just "put out useful information and let the public make decisions."
In response, Mr. Duncan said the department wanted to shift some of the annual investment in federal student aid from colleges with poor outcomes to those that are doing a good job preparing students for their careers.
"We think that next step is necessary," Mr. Duncan said, "in addition to transparency."